While slow starts have been a big problem for the Eagles this season – they are last in the league in first-quarter scoring heading into the final regular-season finale Sunday against Washington -- their collapses in the fourth quarter likely will be listed as the cause of death if they don’t get an opportunity to defend their Super Bowl title.
Jim Schwartz’s defense had a pair of epic fourth-quarter collapses earlier this season that are the difference between the Eagles' needing help from the Chicago Bears this week to squeak into the playoffs as the NFC’s final wild-card entry, and cruising in as an 11-win division champion with a home playoff game.
In Week 4, they blew a 17-3 lead against the Tennessee Titans, giving up 17 unanswered points and eventually losing in overtime when the Titans drove 75 yards on 16 plays for the winning touchdown.
Three weeks later, they blew a 17-0 lead in the fourth quarter to the Carolina Panthers, giving up three straight touchdowns in a 21-17 loss at the Linc.
It almost happened again last week. The Eagles had a seemingly comfy 13-point fourth-quarter lead against the Houston Texans with five minutes left in the game. But that lead quickly evaporated as the Texans drove 55 and 80 yards for back-to-back touchdowns to take a 30-29 lead.
It took a 72-yard drive engineered by Nick Foles, two impressive third-and-10 conversions, and a 35-yard game-winning field goal by Jake Elliott to keep the Eagles’ playoff hopes alive.
“Every game’s different,’’ Schwartz said Thursday when asked about his defense’s propensity for slipping on banana peels in the final 15 minutes this season. “I think the one thing that might be similar [in the collapses] is that depth has been an issue for us this year. So maybe that’s affecting us later in the game.
“That’s no excuse. But the way games go, there’s going to be ebbs and flows to every game. There’s going to be big plays early in the game. There’s going to be times that you give up plays early in the game that maybe get overlooked.
“The end of the game is just so much more scrutinized. And it’s so much more critical.’’
Opposing quarterbacks have a 105.2 passer rating against the Eagles in the fourth quarter and overtime, compared with 90.6 in the first three quarters. Eleven of the 22 touchdown passes they’ve given up have come in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Five quarterbacks have 130-plus fourth-quarter passer ratings against the Eagles: the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott (155.7), the Saints’ Drew Brees (149.3), the Titans’ Marcus Mariota (137.9), the Texans’ Deshaun Watson (132.6), and the Panthers’ Cam Newton (131.1).
Mariota was 15-for-21 for 139 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and overtime in the Titans’ comeback win.
Newton completed 16 of 22 passes for 201 yards and two TDs in the fourth quarter of the Panthers’ shocking win.
Last week, Watson, who threw for just 164 yards and no TDs in the first three quarters, completed 13 of 19 passes for 175 yards and two TDs in the fourth quarter.
The Eagles have given up 114 points in the fourth quarter this season. That’s the 10th most in the NFL.
The blame for some of these fourth-quarter collapses isn’t totally on the defense. In the loss to Tennessee, the offense went into a fourth-quarter coma. Carson Wentz was 6-for-14 for 56 yards and was sacked twice in the fourth quarter and overtime.
In the loss to the Panthers, the Eagles ran the ball just one time in the fourth quarter and Wentz threw for just 29 yards.
Schwartz took a backhanded shot at the offense Thursday, subtly pointing out how turnovers by the offense against Houston put his defense in some precarious situations.
“Our last game, I was more disappointed when we had to go on the field at the 5-yard line [after a second-quarter fumble by Foles],’’ Schwartz said.
The Texans needed just one play to score, with Watson running in untouched on a keeper around the left side.
“One play and we missed the quarterback,’’ he said. “That could’ve been a huge turning point if we could’ve held them to a field goal there, which we ended up doing later in the game in the middle of the third quarter when it was 16-13 and we took the field at midfield [following a Foles interception] and they went three-and-out.
“I really think that was a critical part of the game. If we had given up a touchdown there and gone down two scores in the middle of the third quarter, that would’ve been tough sledding.’’
A day after his coach said he would “love to have’’ him return for a sixth season with the Eagles in 2019, Darren Sproles wasn’t ready to say yes or no to that possibility.
The 35-year-old running back said Thursday that the only thing on his mind right now is the game against the Redskins.
“After this game, I’ll start thinking about all of that,’’ he said.
Asked if that meant he was entertaining the possibility of playing one more season, he smiled and said, “I’m not saying that. I’m not going to tell you nothing right now.’’
Sproles initially had planned to retire after the 2017 season. But he tore his ACL in Week 3 and had to watch the Eagles’ Super Bowl run from the sideline.
He didn’t want his career to end like that, so he rehabbed the knee and returned for a 14th NFL season, signing a one-year deal with the Eagles. But he suffered a severe hamstring injury in the first game of the season and missed 10 games before finally returning in Week 13.
Sproles didn’t look like a 35-year-old last Sunday, when he had 108 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in a 32-30 win over Houston that kept the Eagles’ playoff hopes alive.
“I was able to get into a groove,’’ he said.
The 5-6, 190-pound running back and return ace has 64 career touchdowns and 8,266 rushing and receiving yards.
He said his wife, Michel, and daughters, Devyn and Rhyan, would like him to retire. “They want me home,’’ said Sproles, who lives in suburban San Diego.
Pederson has made it clear that if Sproles wants to return, the team will welcome him with open arms.
“I think Darren Sproles would be a great addition" next year, he said. “He’s a great leader. He works hard. He’s a great mentor to a lot of young players. Anybody would love to have a Darren Sproles. I would.’’
--Nick Foles completed 20 of 21 third-down passes in the last two games for 248 yards and one touchdown. Eleven of those 21 pass attempts (52.4 percent) produced first downs.
--The Eagles used fewer three-wide receiver sets the last two games and more multiple-tight-end formations. In their wins over the Texans and the Rams, they used 11 personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR) on just 42.5 percent of their offensive plays compared with 54.8 percent in their first 13 games. Foles completed 29 of 35 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns with 12 personnel the last two games. He was 28-for-39 for 438 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception with 11 personnel.
--Foles attempted just three throws of 20-plus yards against Houston. He completed one of them – an impressive 83-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor that traveled 52 yards in the air. He also had a 29-yard incompletion to Agholor and a 45-yard incompletion to Alshon Jeffery.
--Thirty-two of Foles’ 49 aimed pass attempts against Houston traveled zero-to-10 yards (24 completions for 212 yards and three TDs).
--The Eagles have given up 1,530 rushing yards this season., with 257 of them, or 16.8 percent, by quarterbacks. Seventeen of their opponents’ 70 rushing first downs, or 24.2 percent, have been by quarterbacks, including four each by the Texans’ Deshaun Watson and the Jaguars’ Blake Bortles.
--Eagles tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert have combined for 10 of the team’s 20 red-zone touchdown catches. Ertz has seven and Goedert has three. Ertz is tied for fourth in red-zone TD catches behind only the Packers’ Devonte Adams, the Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins, and the Colts’ Eric Ebron. He has 15 red-zone TD catches in the last two seasons.
--The Eagles had 10 touchdown drives in their last four games. Four of them were two plays or fewer. They had no TD drives of two plays or fewer in their first 11 games.
--The Eagles scored on their first possession in three of their last four games. They scored on their first possession just twice in their first 11 games.